|Honduras: Torture center
found on former military base
El Aguacate was all but forgotten, about to
fade into history, the secrets of the former military base lost amidst
scrub brush and dilapidated buildings. Yet a simmering conflict over who
can plant corn what was once a bustling airstrip has unleashed wrenching
questions about torture and killings during the 1980s.
Located 130 kilometers east of the Honduran
capital, El Aguacate was constructed by the United States military in 1983
as a supply base for the Nicaraguan Contras. Used by both the Contras and
the Honduran military for the remainder of the decade, it was abandoned
by the Contras when their war ended in 1990. Since then it has been controlled
by Honduran military officials, some of whom decided to rent out the base
to nearby farmers, a move which angered the original owners, peasants who
had the land expropriated for a meager sum in the early 80s.
“They paid us in one and two Lempira notes
so that we fools would think it was a lot. They delivered the money in
plastic bags and we Indians thought that they were carrying a big amount
of money,” remembered Juan Villalobos, one of those forced to sell land
that would be used for the base.
In recent years, the 2,000-hectare base hasn't
fallen into complete disuse. Neighbors report the strip is used by small
planes to transport drugs. According to Victor Montoya, the police chief
for the sparsely-populated department of Olancho, where El Aguacate is
located, the base is one of 17 clandestine strips used by drug traffickers.
Honduran military officials have been repeatedly linked to drug trafficking
and money laundering activities.
“Imagine the example these officials give
to the soldiers under their orders. They'll be converted into delinquents
instead of good men. With the examples given by their commanders, when
these soldiers are discharged they'll be our new delinquents,” said Carlos
Rodriguez. He's a leader of a group of 82 peasant families that grew tired
of just reminiscing about the past and complaining about the present, so
earlier this year they invaded part of the base to plant corn.
Local peasants went to government investigators
looking into the political violence of the 1980s to suggest they take a
close look at El Aguacate. On August 12, Sandra Ponce, the government's
Fiscal Especial para los Derechos Humanos, announced she had discovered
at Aguacate at least six cramped metal cells, with bloodstained walls,
apparently used to torture and kill political prisoners. Ponce also reported
discovering 48 graves, one of which is almost 500 meters long, in which
hundreds of people may be buried.
Ponce complained that the military had recently
removed some evidence of past activities on the base. She ordered the area
sealed off by police and is awaiting the arrival in September of forensic
experts from Germany and the United States to continue her investigation.
Reporters have been barred from most of the site, where the cells and gravesites
have been isolated by rows of yellow tape.
If bodies are found on the site, they may
belong to several groups. The base was for a time a Contra hospital, and
some bodies may belong to Contras who died there. Others are reportedly
of captured Sandinistas who were tortured to death on the base. Rights
activists also believe the bodies of disappeared Hondurans may emerge from
the abandoned base, and they're pressuring the government to not let the
military off the hook.
Edgardo Dumas, the Honduran ministro de defensa,
is trying to do just that, still practicing the feigned innocence that
for years characterized Honduran declarations about the Contras. “This
territory belonged to an organization that didn't exactly depend on the
armed forces, so we are in no way responsible for acts which took place
there,” Dumas said.
Among the bodies buried at El Aguacate could
be that of James Carney, a U.S. Jesuit who disappeared in Honduras in 1983
while serving as chaplain to a hapless guerrilla group. Some witnesses
have said they saw Carney detained at the base following his capture by
U.S.-supplied Honduran troops.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, the auxiliary bishop
of Detroit, inspected parts of El Aguacate on August 25. The investigation
on the base “has opened a good possibility that we can get to the bottom
of this case,” said Gumbleton, who took back to the U.S. medical forms
to be completed by Carney's relatives. The information obtained from the
forms would be used to help identify Carney's body should it be found on
The bishop said developments in Honduras
might also accelerate truth-telling in the north. “If Honduran authorities
can unearth [Carney's] body,” Gumbleton said, “it will maybe force the
U.S. government to share the information it has about what happened. The
U.S. no doubt has a lot more information on the case than they've been
willing to reveal til now.”
If Carney's body is found on the base, it
may be incomplete. A prominent peasant leader claimed in August that Carney's
severed head is buried in a tunnel near the main entrance of the military's
High Command in Tegucigalpa.
The new information comes from Jorge Ulloa,
a leader of the Union Nacional de Campesinos who served as the organization's
coordinator during the 1980s in the department of Olancho.
According to Ulloa, who pieced together the
history after talking to peasants and former military officials in the
area, Carney was captured alive by Honduran soldiers and then taken to
Aguacate. Ulloa said Carney was tortured at the base and then thrown
from a helicopter into the nearby jungle. That part of Carney's fate has
been largely corroborated by other testimony, including that of a former
Yet Ulloa has added an additional component,
claiming that military officials in Tegucigalpa demanded proof that Carney
had indeed been executed. As a result, soldiers located the body and severed
Carney's head, which was then transported to the Estado Mayor Conjunto
in Tegucigalpa, where Ulloa said it was buried along with body parts of
other assassinated political prisoners. Ulloa said a former military intelligence
officer told him that Carney's head was undamaged except for a deep cut
on one of his lips.
A military spokesperson, Colonel Danilo Soto,
termed the accusation “absurd,” [absurda] but Ponce is taking the accusation
seriously and hopes to inspect the military facility during coming days.
Dumas said he had approved a search of the facility.